Better than: Anyone who’s ever tried to play a song for longer than five minutes.
Neil Young’s wobbly presence on stage is fascinating. He glides around, slow but confident, moving ever so carefully with the music — whether he’s crooning a quiet, reflective ballad about watching his friends die from drugs, or slamming chords on his guitar while screaming, “Keep fuckin’ up!” His expression — one of those deep-set eyes half-squinted, peering out into the soul of seemingly every god damn person in the room –rarely changes. He sings from the corner of his mouth. His lips quiver. Sometimes, he’ll even toss a fist in the air to emphasize a point.
This is all to say: Neil Young has some swagger, and can pretty much do whatever the fuck he wants. Last night at the Barclays Center, he did just that. The 67-year-old songwriter took the arena with his on-and-off-again band Crazy Horse and performed a 13-song set that lasted nearly two and a half hours, but this wasn’t your average “classic rock dude” kind of concert. Don’t get me wrong. Young rocked in a “groovy” sort of way. But he also filled the evening with moments of performance art outside of the music, using visuals, props, and people to tell miniature stories during and between songs. And at times, uh, things got a little weird.
After opening the concert with a fantastically aggressive four-song run (“Love and Only Love,” “Powderfinger,” “Born in Ontario,” and “Walk Like a Giant”) that entailed simply standing in the middle of the stage in a triangle with Crazy Horse, the three men shifting their weight back and forth like pendulums, smashing pedals and playing the fucking shit out of their guitars, Young slowed things down and trash started to blow across stage. Yes, you read that correctly: Trash started to blow across stage. Not a tiny amount of trash, either. In a matter of minutes, Young gripped the amp behind him as the swirling wind full of trash nearly knocked him over. He soundtracked the scene with deep pounds on his guitar that rippled throughout the crowd as fans went ballistic, cheering for Neil as he hung on during the hurricane.
Young then put down his electric and transitioned into his other half: the folksy songwriter from Canada. He immediately delivered a sweet, short, and quiet rendition of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” wandering aimlessly as he sang, “Gone, gone, the damage done,” his presence suggesting that the lyrics still might strike a little too close to home. He followed that with a bouncy “Twisted Road,” Psychedelic Pill‘s tribute to a younger America about Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and the Grateful Dead, a song so earnest that only Neil Young could get away with writing it.
Then he sat down at the piano bench. After plucking away at the keys for the unreleased “Singer Without a Song,” a woman holding a guitar case wandered on stage and physically acted out the lyrics: “She’s a singer without a song she’s livin’/Driftin’ on her melody of gold/Looking for the words behind her feelin’/She’s ready for a woman to unfold.” As Young sang, she gazed longingly out into the crowd, tossing her hair back and around, seemingly unsure of what direction to go. Even though it was a bit over-the-top and, well, strange, the moment somehow resonated after she disappeared, despite its silliness.
But isn’t that exactly what Neil Young is? He’s corny, but charming; overt, but shameless; reckless, but endearing. He’s one of the few artists in the world who can genuinely say he doesn’t give a damn about what you think of him, and you genuinely believe him. And that attitude is nothing but admirable. Last night, he wore an unbuttoned red flannel and bootcut jeans. He sweated a lot. His wispy hair flowed lovingly. He played songs for 20 minutes at a time. He sang a cappella. He asked the audience if it was “all good in the hood” and said that the Barclays Center was “far out.” He was just Neil Young, man. To top it all off, after his encore, he ended the evening in Brooklyn the most appropriate way he possibly could: “Thank you, Jay-Z … Crazy Horse!”
Critical Bias: “The Needle and the Damage Done” might have been a lullaby of mine growing up.
Overheard: “Neil!!!” like 6,000 times.
Random Notebook Dump: Trying to figure out what the trash means.
Love and Only Love
Born in Ontario
Walk Like a Giant
The Needle and the Damage Done
Singer Without a Song (new song–not sure of the name)
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
Roll Another Number